A new report from a US-based watchdog says Russia’s treatment of journalists is worse now than it was during the Communist era. Seventeen journalists have been murdered since 2000 and just once have the killers been caught and punished. Only Iraq and Algeria are more dangerous for the press. According to the report from the Committee to Protect Journalists this represents “a sorry record for a great and powerful nation that embarked on democratisation after more than 70 years of brutal repression”. (photo credit: Argenberg)
Aleksei Sidorov, editor of Tolyattinskoye Obozreniye was killed in the Volga region city of Tolyatti (which CPJ called “Russia’s Detroit”). Sidorov exposed organised crime and government corruption in the car-manufacturing city as did the editor who preceeded him, Valery Ivanov. Assailants shot dead Ivanov and 18 months later stabbed Sidorov repeatedly with an ice pick. The official version was that Sidorov was killed in a random street brawl after he refused a stranger’s appeals for vodka. Investigators made no efforts to check out his records, interview witnesses, or visit his news organisation.
The Novaya Gazeta newspaper has suffered most for its courage in examining Russia’s underbelly. Three of its best reporters – Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, and Anna Politkovskaya – have been murdered. In February, three defendants in the Politkovskaya trial were found not guilty after the evidence was skimpy. Though the case is now being retried, no one expects justice to emerge. “Once again, the state had given the masterminds an easy pass,” said the CPJ. “Only the small fry were in the dock.”
CPJ says the failure to achieve justice reflects shortcomings at every level: political, investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial. The poor record of solving journalism-related killings stands in sharp contrast to Russia’s record in solving murders among the general population. One of the country’s top law enforcement officials, Aleksandr Bastrykin, has said the vast majority of murders have been solved in recent years. Bastrykin, however, has acknowledged that discovering who ordered the Politkovskaya murder would be much harder.
The Kremlin must take a large slice of the responsibility for the problem. It has marginalised critical journalists, by barring them from state-controlled national television and obstructing their work through politicised regulations and bureaucratic harassment. Murder investigations have been secretive, marred by conflicts of interest, and frequently influenced by external political forces. Investigators have failed to follow up on journalism-related leads, examine work material, or question professional contacts while police have concealed important evidence without explanation. It is hardly surprising to find many of those murdered have been the harshest critics of the Kremlin.
CPJ have recommended the Prosecutor General should order a thorough re-examination of all 17 cases. It should pursue unchecked leads, track down wanted suspects, and examine professional motives. Where there are conflicts of interest, cases should be reassigned. Investigators and prosecutors should also communicate clearly and regularly with victims’ families. Until this is overturned, the Russia media system will continue to be based on self-censorship leaving many important areas under-investigated or uncovered. CPJ says the international community must hold Russian leaders accountable. Key institutions such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe need to resist Russian claim they should not concern themselves with human rights. The murdered 17 deserve nothing less. As the CPJ says “an undemocratic Russia is a threat to international stability.”